Leading Innovation Through Collaboration

Elisa Waldman
Leadership Abstracts

What is the role of the community college in development of technology to benefit the warfighter and the federal government? Many may assume this is not an initiative that the community college typically supports, but Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Overland Park, Kansas, begs to differ. Presented with the opportunity to lead a collaborative effort involving multiple federal agencies, the Kansas Small Business Development Center (SBDC), 100+ business owners, private equity partners, and college staff, JCCC has hosted Encountering Innovation Week for the past two years.

Encountering Innovation Week provides over 100 innovators from 10 states with the opportunity to present and showcase their technology to federal technology scouts and the public. Technology scouts from the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, NASA, and other government agencies attend to learn about new innovation; they listen to approximately 80 pitches, examine 100+ poster board displays, discuss government needs, and network with innovators during lunches and evening networking sessions at the five-day conference. Through these connections, innovators gain feedback and direction, and their innovations are evaluated for socialization opportunities among government agencies, including government contracts and Small Business Innovation Research grants.

The Leadership Challenge

When approached by the Kansas SBDC to host Encountering Innovation Week, JCCC, through its SBDC, quickly accepted the leadership role in organizing and hosting this unique conference. The leadership challenge: development of a week-long program to satisfy numerous stakeholders, all with different priorities, interests, and goals.

Project Management 101

The first step in meeting this leadership challenge was to identify a wide variety of stakeholders and bring them all to the table. The JCCC SBDC offered to be the project architect and developed a nine-month project management plan, working backwards from the date of the conference. The plan involved calls with representatives for all stakeholders, which were held monthly, then bimonthly, and, eventually, weekly. During each call, planning priorities were reviewed and scheduled, responsible parties were identified, and timelines agreed upon. While not all functions were prioritized at the same time, all stakeholders understood what their critical role would be and when these priorities would become a focus for the team. For example, the earliest priorities included gaining buy-in from federal tech scouts to attend and engaging innovators to participate. As we hit the six-month milestone, those stakeholders involved in marketing and program planning got to work. Within eight weeks of the conference, all stakeholders were engaged and working toward achieving their commitments to make the program a success.

Satisfying Multiple Stakeholders

With the project team engaged, the JCCC SBDC created profiles for each stakeholder, clearly identifying their expectations and the steps needed to satisfy their goals. These stakeholders included federal technology scouts, the SBDC network, private equity investors, the public, staff and faculty at JCCC, and, of course, the innovators.

Federal technology scouts attend the conference in order to find innovative solutions to immediate government needs, resolving operational challenges and/or saving costs. Typical innovations are products that can assist the federal government in medical, cyber, operations, and power and energy industries. After hearing the innovators’ pitches and reviewing poster boards, the federal tech scouts socialize innovations of interest to different branches of government that need and can support commercialization of the technology.

The national SBDC network is the second stakeholder, interested in supporting its client, the small business innovator, who will potentially experience job growth, capital infusion, and increased sales. The Kansas SBDC, with regional centers located at JCCC and seven other institutions of higher learning throughout the state, partnered with JCCC by soliciting federal tech scouts and innovators. The JCCC SBDC worked hand in hand with the Kansas SBDC Tech Center to market the conference, evaluate innovations, train innovators to pitch, and create the conference agenda.

With approximately 70 volunteers needed to staff events throughout the week, this program provides an exceptional professional development opportunity for the entire Continuing Education staff at the college to learn about technology commercialization. Not only do members of the Kansas SBDC team assist in preparing the innovators for the pitch and poster board sessions, but many members of the Continuing Education staff volunteer as scribes and timekeepers during the innovators’ pitches. This is a unique opportunity (not open to the public) for the staff to better understand how the government does business and supports technology commercialization.

Private equity investors are always looking for cutting edge technology to bring to market. The conference included a poster board session mid-week, featuring all innovations, to allow interaction between the innovators, the public, and the tech scouts. Throughout the poster board session, investors, tech scouts, staff and faculty of JCCC, and the public are encouraged to speak to the innovators and learn about their concepts.

The innovators, the most obvious stakeholders, often do not know how to commercialize or market their product. In preparation for this week-long opportunity, innovators work closely with a technology advisor from the Kansas SBDC, or their state SBDC if outside of Kansas, assessing the technology readiness level of their innovation and preparing their pitch and poster board. The SBDC advisor assists the innovator in preparing a quad chart, which summarizes the invention, as well as financial projections and feasibility of the project moving forward. During the pitch, the innovator is questioned by the technology scouts, and together, the scouts and innovator often envision applications for the technology that had not already been contemplated.


Continuous Improvement

In 2017, the first year that JCCC hosted Encountering Innovation Week, the agenda consisted of innovator pitches and one plenary day, including a poster board session. The JCCC SBDC identified that the approximately 100 innovators in town for the week experienced a great deal of down time. In 2018, the JCCC SBDC created curriculum for these innovators and the public, including eight workshops on innovation and technology commercialization

  • The Goldsmith Model for Technology Commercialization
  • Accounting for Government Contracts
  • Intellectual Property Considerations for Innovation
  • Sales and Lead Management for Innovation
  • Market Research for Innovation
  • Competing for Government Contracts
  • Manufacturing Innovation
  • Exporting Innovation

The classes were taught by staff from the JCCC SBDC, the Nebraska SBDC, Kansas Manufacturing Solutions, an intellectual property attorney, a government accountant, the Kansas Procurement Technical Assistance Center, and other resource partners. The addition of classes to Encountering Innovation Week allowed innovators to benefit from what community colleges do best: educate.

As word of Encountering Innovation Week spreads throughout the country, so do the opportunities offered at the conference. In 2018, the Director of the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR/STTR) Program was the featured guest speaker for the poster board session at the conference. The Air Force SBIR/STTR Program has a research budget exceeding $800 million, most of which is focused on supporting qualified small businesses in creating innovative technologies for air, space, and cyberspace. The Air Force Director met individually with every innovator at the poster board session, learning about each innovation and explaining potential opportunities with the Air Force.

Lessons Learned

The lessons learned over two years are continuously unfolding. First, we must remain open to new partners and stakeholders at all times. While SBIR grants were not among our original resources, keeping an open mind allowed us to bring in the Air Force as a major contributor to the 2019 conference. Second, while innovation appears to be all about inspiration, accountability and ownership are required in order to lead successful collaboration of this magnitude. The JCCC SBDC took responsibility for the areas of project management, communication, program development, marketing, and logistics. These leadership roles demand dedicated time and personnel.

The Future of Encountering Innovation

Encountering Innovation Week brings private innovators and government tech scouts together on our campus, expanding the footprint of the college's support of cutting-edge technology commercialization throughout the 10 states in attendance and within the federal government. JCCC and the Kansas SBDC are currently working with leaders in five other states to explore hosting similar conferences, allowing easier access to innovators and all stakeholders throughout the country.

Innovators walk away from Encountering Innovation Week with education targeted to technology commercialization, action items, and allies in the federal government willing to support, connect, and invest in their innovations. This conference brings a wealth of information and resources at a reasonable cost to innovators who may not know where to turn for assistance; without these resources and encouragement, some of these innovators may cease pursuing technologies that will have a significant impact on society. At Johnson County Community College, we are privileged to be in the business of changing the world and transforming lives—and Encountering Innovation does just that.

Elisa Waldman is Dean, Continuing Education, at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.